Penny Lane was worried. She’d made “Nuts!”, a documentary about John R. Brinkley, a possibly obscure historical figure who, in the early 20th century, built an empire based on his cure for impotence: injecting goat testicles into humans. He was a fraud, but the movie she’d made spends most of its running time pretending to be on his side. Only at the end do you realize you’d been swindled, much as he’d swindled a sizable chunk of the American public. It’s an unusual way to structure a documentary, and though the filmmaker (also of the similarly savvy “Our Nixon”) fretted that viewers might get the wrong idea — at least for awhile — she tells us it has much to say about our capacity to believe in charlatans, even today (nudge nudge).
The structure of this is pretty interesting.
I thought it would be boring to make a straight biopic about this guy. The first thing you’d say is, “He was a conman and everyone was fooled! Ha ha!” When I was talking to people about it before I made the film, I could tell people really wanted to believe him. I would say, “There was this guy who did this thing,” and they’d say, “Wow! Did it work?” People really wanted to believe. I realized I could take advantage of that. It would be more interesting to make a film that I’d never seen before, where you perpetuate the lie a little bit, to some extent, before you admit you had done that. People have the experience of having been conned as opposed to sitting back in their comfy chairs with hindsight and laughing at those people. I thought it would be more interesting to create the feeling of having been fooled.
I actually knew little about him or about the film going in, so part of me was thinking, “Well, maybe he was one of the good ones!”
Exactly! It’s hard to not believe in someone whose enemies are bureaucracies and the government. It’s hard not to be on the side of the little man fighting against the establishment. Because the establishment is lame. Who wants to root for them?
One of the red flags watching it was that he had a pull-up-from-the-bootstraps narrative, which is often a lie we tell ourselves to think we’ll be the ones who succeed, when so few of us do.
That’s something that’s maybe particular to America. It’s intrinsic to the American dream. We’re very attached to those kinds of stories. We know it’s bulls—, yet we yearn to believe them. And Brinkley knew that. He knew people liked that story, so he used it.
He was also using anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, turning people against the know-it-alls who were keeping him down. That’s something people love to.
That’s true. He walked that line between saying he was a common man of the people and saying, “I’m way smarter than everybody. Look how successful I am!” That’s an odd thing when you’re able to say you’re a man of the people when you’re buying your fourth yacht during the Great Depression. We’ve always had people like that in our culture.